Cinematic Chat: growing pains in “Turning Red”

by Elsa Ying (’23) | April 8, 2022

Art by Ava Hennen (’22)

Disney’s recent movies tend to focus on stories of families of color, whether through the lens of magical realism in Encanto or Marvel’s expansive universe in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. However, their most recent film, Turning Red, illustrates an entirely new perspective by centering on the intersection of the immigrant experience and teenage growing pains.

Turning Red is the first Pixar feature film to be directed solely by a woman, with Chinese-Canadian director Domee Shi at the helm. Shi is no stranger to breaking barriers; in fact, her previous short film Bao was the first Pixar short film to be directed by a woman, and she became the first woman of color to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2019. While Bao focused on motherhood with the personification of a bao (a steamed bun common in Chinese cuisine), Turning Red carries over fantastical elements into a far more grounded film set against the backdrop of Toronto in 2002. The film follows thirteen-year-old Chinese-Canadian Meilin Lee, who discovers her hereditary curse to turn into a giant red panda when overcome with emotions. Mei starts off the movie as the perfect daughter under her mother Ming’s overprotective eye, but she soon grows more independent with the help of her three best friends—Miriam, Abby, and Priya.

From the beginning of the movie, Shi makes it very clear that the story is not meant to demonize Mei’s Chinese identity or culture. Mei is proud of her family’s temple and cheerfully assists her mother in cleaning and giving tours. Although her friends call her “brainwashed” for enjoying ordinary chores, the dynamic portrayal of Mei and Ming completing these tasks illustrates the strength and honesty of their relationship. Never once is Mei’s love for her culture questioned, a refreshing change from the usual narratives of second-generation immigrants rejecting their culture in favor of assimilation. Instead of focusing on the trauma and suffering of Asian immigrants in the Western world, Shi tells a story of puberty and teenage girlhood through the lens of her own cultural identity, thus providing a different but much needed form of representation.

Shi treats teenage girlhood with equal respect. Historically, teenage girls have always been discredited and shamed for their hobbies, especially when it comes to popular media sensations like boybands. It’s easy to write off teen girls as obsessive, boy-crazy fangirls, but Shi instead validates this experience with relatable depictions of Mei’s friends. Though cringey at times, the way the four girls unabashedly love the fictional 4*Town is uniquely honest and unapologetic, and they are never shown feeling embarrassed or afraid to express their interests. Aside from 4*Town, Mei proudly introduces her interests of math and playing the flute at the beginning of the film.

Instead of criticizing and shaming Mei’s identities to create conflict, Shi focuses on how the various aspects of Mei’s identity clash as she matures. Mei struggles between balancing her desire to be a good daughter by fulfilling her mother’s strict expectations and her love for her friends and non-traditional interests. In the movie’s climax, Ming discovers Mei’s betrayal and accidentally releases her own fearsome red panda. Although it initially appears like Ming’s red panda is the final villain for Mei to defeat, it’s clear by the actions of Mei’s family and friends that they still care for Ming and are trying to help her rather than defeat her. Thus, even in the crux of the conflict, Shi avoids demonizing any party, portraying the red panda confrontation as a fight between mother and daughter rather than clashing cultures.

At its core, Turning Red remains an universal story of teenage growing pains and mother-daughter relationships, only through the specific lens of a Chinese-Canadian family. While the cultural aspects of the movie—the Lee family’s temple and the specific 2000s culture references—might not be relatable for all, the film’s message of embracing changes certainly is.

Categories: Column, Entertainment

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